ad Dei GloriamMinistries

Home > Bible Commentary > OT History > Polygamy in the Bible

Why did God Permit Multiple Marriages in the OT?

This article originated from a discussion in a Bible study class a few months ago.  I don’t remember the exact context, but somehow the conversation turned to a debate about the allowance of polygamy in the Bible, centered on the several marriages of King David.  One person stated that multiple wives for David were not prohibited by God in the Bible.  A second person argued that David should not have taken on multiple wives because it set a bad precedence for his son Solomon, who followed him as king and was led away from God by his many foreign wives.  Actually, both parties were correct in their arguments, but each was addressing different components of the issue.  The first (an attorney) was addressing the legal aspect while the second was more concerned with the moral and practical consequences.

After this exchange, I decided to do a session on the subject.  The following is a rough transcription of the class.

Biblical View Of Polygamy

We first clarify that, we’re referring to polygamy as the practice of having more than once spouse simultaneously, rather than a person that has been married multiple times without any of the marriage periods coinciding.  The word “polygamy” comes from the Greek polygamia which contains the roots of polys (many) and gamos (wedding or marriage).  More specific terms are “polyandry” from the Greek polyandrios (Gk root aner means “man”) denoting the marriage of a woman to more than one man, and “polygyny” from the Greek polygynaios (Gk root gyne means “woman”) representing the marriage of a man to multiple women.  The latter case is what we find in the Bible, but in this article, we’ll use the general (and more familiar) term “polygamy”.  We could also mention in contrast that, the word “monogamy” carries the Greek roots monos (one or alone) and gamos, so it designates a marriage between one person and one spouse.

The question of polygamy in the Bible is a difficult one in our modern times since, even though most people view the practice as immoral and it is illegal in most countries, nowhere in the Bible do we find it explicitly condemned.  The first mention of polygamy is in Genesis 4 where Lamech (a descendant of Cain), married two women.  In addition to David and Solomon, several other prominent men in the OT were polygamists, such as Abraham and Jacob.

Let’s look at two prominent scriptures that address the topic of marriage.  The first comes from the sixth day of creation.

So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.  But for Adam, no suitable helper was found.  So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.  Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.  The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  (Gen 20:20-24).

Turning to Jesus' teachings in the NT:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.  Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.  Some Pharisees came to him to test him.  They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.  But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  (Mt 19:1-9 – also Mk 10:1-12).

In the above verses, it appears that God’s original intent for marriage was a monogamous relationship. Notice the continuous use of “wife” in the singular form.  Elsewhere in scripture, Paul speaks of the relationship between husbands and wives (1Cor 7:2, Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-19).  In each case, he always refers to both husband and wife in singular, or both in plural, but never to a husband (singular) and wives (plural).

Other pictures of marriage that we find include God the Father and the Nation of Israel, and Jesus and the Church.  In each case, the bride (Israel and the Church) is made up of many people, but is to be thought of corporately as one.  Finally, in giving the qualifications for church leaders, Paul lists one of the requirements as being “the husband of but one wife” (1Tim 3:2,12).  Some have interpreted this to mean that a divorced man is disqualified from serving in leadership (or at least some positions), while others interpret the command as meaning a man who currently has one wife, but in either case, polygamy is excluded.  Since 1Pe 1:16 states that all Christians are to “be holy”, and are a “kingdom of priests”, Paul’s lists should be taken as the ideal for all, not just for church leaders.  Finally, Scripture commands us to be subject to government authorities unless a law specifically conflicts with a Biblical command (Ac 5:29) and, as we mentioned earlier, polygamy is illegal in most countries.

Yet, while the New Testament clearly forbids polygamy, we can’t retroactively apply NT commands back to OT times, and as we mentioned earlier, we find no explicit condemnation of multiple wives in the OT.  In fact, after David’s fling with Bathsheba, God told him (through the prophet Nathan) that, if David’s and Saul’s wives and concubines were not enough, He would have given David even more (2Sam 12).  When David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king, he accumulated 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1Kgs 11.  Multiple marriages obviously led both into trouble, but in David’s case, it was his adultery and murder that led to the immediate death of his firstborn, and the later deaths of several of his other sons.

Likewise with Solomon, it was the prohibition against foreign wives rather than his multiple wives that led to his worship of foreign gods and the Northern Kingdom revolt.  (For more on the topic of foreign marriages, see Was the Intermarriage of an Israelite (Boaz) and a Moabite (Ruth) Forbidden by the Covenant Law?).  In Deut 17, Moses anticipates Israel asking for a future king and mentions several prohibitions for the kings including not acquiring great numbers of horses or large amounts of gold or silver.  He also says that “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Dt 17:17).  Moses is not specific as to the exact quantity that would constitute “many” wives, but is emphasizing their negative influence, so I don’t think we can’t take this as an absolute prohibition against polygamy.

Thus, even though we’ve seen that God’s ideal plan for marriage was (and still is) monogamy, we’re still faced with the question of why He allowed polygamy in the OT.  We first note that, just because something is recorded in the Bible does not mean that God endorses it.  Even though God allowed polygamy for a period of time, He never endorsed it (despite what the atheists and liberal Bible critics claim).

We are never specifically told why God allowed multiple spouses, but we can possible make some reasonable speculations.  Returning to Matthew 19, Jesus corrects the Pharisees false claim that Moses “commanded” a man to give a certificate of divorce upon separation.  Jesus states that God only allowed divorce due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts.  We probably have similar grounds for the allowance of polygamy.  There are other practices in the Bible for which we are given no specific reason for the lack of condemnation.  In the NT, Paul and other writers work toward improvement of slavery conditions rather than outright abolishment of the practice.  Of course, we must also note that slavery was much different in his time as compared to that of later centuries.

Several reasons may be suggested for the Bible’s tolerance of polygamy based upon God producing a beneficial outcome from the practice.  One explanation might be that it allowed for more rapid fulfillment of God’s command to Noah and his three sons to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:7) after the flood.  It also permitted the Jewish race to quickly expand in order that God’s promises to Abraham and the other patriarchs might be fulfilled.

Returning to the case of Solomon, some have defended his marriages based upon the common tradition of royal marriages, and the fact that it brought peace to Israel.  I tend to reject this argument on two grounds.  First, intermarriage between Israelites and foreigners was prohibited in most cases, and second, Israel’s kings were frequently rebuked for pursuing alliances with foreign nations rather than calling on God when seeking protection from enemies.  We see this throughout the book of Hosea, along with frequent admonitions elsewhere in the OT.

Perhaps the best argument for God’s temporary lenience toward polygamy is His concern for the welfare and protection of women as the weaker sex.  Throughout history, there have been a larger number of women than men in most civilizations.  According to the 2000 US Census, the additional females to males exceeded 5.3 million.  Assuming the same ratio of women to men during King David’s reign (based on David’s census in 2Sam 24) yields an estimate of over 50,000 additional females than males.  In actuality however, the disparity was probably much higher.  The extremely high fatality rate among males due to frequent brutal wars probably resulted in an even higher ratio of women to men.

We must also understand the status of women during the OT period.  Because most women were uneducated and unskilled in income-producing trades, it was very difficult, if not nearly impossible for an unmarried woman to provide for herself.  In addition, religious or charity institutes were not established until the church age, so she was forced to rely on her father, brothers or other close relatives for provision and protection.  If her closest relatives were deceased, disabled or otherwise unable to provide for her, about the only other alternatives were prostitution, slavery or starvation.

Thus, God may have allowed polygamy during this period so that a man could step in and provide shelter, security and other provisions to multiple wives that would otherwise be left in a very precarious position.  Even though the practice was not God’s ideal design, He used it for good.

Based upon the emphasis on monogamy in the NT, we can also ask, “did the immutable God change the rules?”

While the OT books of the Bible elevate the status of women far above the degradation received in pagan societies, Jesus initiated even more prominent roles during His time on earth.  Luke's Gospel in particular records involvement by women in roles that would be unheard of in other cultures of the time.  Paul wrote that both men and women are one in Christ (Gal 3:28) and commanded husbands to love their wives at all costs (Eph 5:25-31).  Likewise, Peter instructs husbands to love and honor their wives to avoid their prayers being hampered (1Pe 3:7).

With the coming of Jesus and the resulting Christian religion, the dignity of, and opportunities for women were greatly elevated.  Thus, in modern society (or at least those societies influenced by Christianity), there is no longer a practical need for the practice of polygamy.  Women are much more capable of providing for themselves, and we have Christian charities to aid those who need assistance.  There is also no need for a rapid populating of the earth.  In fact, the radical environmentalists claim that we need to decrease the surplus population (to quote Ebenezer Scrooge), but their beliefs are based on faulty assumptions.  Children continue to be a gift from God (Ps 127:3).

As we’ve stated before, God’s original intent for marriage, from Adam and Eve to our modern day, has always been a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman.  So the rules have not changed.  God has never endorsed polygamy.  He appears to have allowed it for a certain period of time because of His benevolent love for His creation.

[Top of Page]